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Warsaw -- no barricades, no marches, but rumbling under surface calm

By Elizabeth PondStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1981



Warsaw

It is a deceptively quiet volcano. Warsaw during a strike looks as dead as Mt. St. Helens in 1979. The rumbling is all hidden. Winter's beauty has only just arrived, fortuitously late this year, given the coal shortage. Trees along the wide boulevards are etched in frost. Snow on the sidewalks has been swept into humps every few yards to clear space for pedestrian traffic. Women whose features repeat the charm that so captivated Napoleon's officers wear stylish fur-trimmed leather coats.

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One bundled-up artist hawks his paintings under the archway at Pooh and Piglet Street. Two coatless laborers hurry by in their dirty blue work jackets and trousers, their bare fingers curled around cuffs in an effort to stay warm. A large ecstatic black poodle burrows in the snow at Victory Square and with a tentative wag invites every onlooker to play with him. One man briskly pushes a pram filled not with a baby, but with potatoes and milk; in this otherwise very unfeminist society younger husbands at least help their wives with the shopping.

Everything is calm -- abnormally calm for a workday in this lively metropolis.The basso continuo of the streetcards is missing. The alleys are blissfully free of bus exhaust. There are no hordes of people waiting at the cement island tram stops in the middle of the roads. Many shops are closed, even though retailers aren't scheduled to participate in the strike. The most animated sign of life is a long line of the notoriously sweet- toothed Poles waiting outside a store for their quota of chocolate -- or earning 20 zloty by standing in line for someone else.

Even at Warsaw University the scene is moribund. There are a few Polish flags flying from upper-story windows. There are hand-lettered signs outside the various institutes supporting demands of the independent trade union Solidarity for work-free Saturdays, easing of censorship, and registration of the farmers' "Rural Solidarity."

But there are no barricades. There are no exhortations. There aren't even any students in sight, except for a few book toters going in or out doors. The posters are left to speak for themselves and are read with concentration by small clusters of passersby.

Even in the Solidarity headquarters of the Warsaw region -- once the strike has begun -- there is little activity to be seen. The day before, the eight rooms off a Szpitalna courtyard were packed. An orderly line snaked down the stairs as visitors from outlying districts waited to get the executive committee's communique and the strike decisions. Now the activists are all dispersed back to their factories, administering the strike. It is only the less involved who have the leisure to come and buy the Solidarity badges and calendars on sale.

The walls are plastered with notices on top of notices: new mimeographed communiques from the Warsaw committee, old carbons announcing actions by local Solidarity groups, slogans, an advertisement for an organ recital, telephone numbers and consultation hours for advice on how to organize unions, appeals for donations of paper to print new missives on.

And such is the discipline that there is only one hint of the feeling toward the Russians: a hand-drawn memorial framed in black -- exactly like many other memorials for loved ones seen posted near churches. This one, however, is for those who died in 1863 -- the year imperial Russia suppressed a Polish revolt for independence.

The extraordinary understatement of today's Polish strikes reflects no passivity or indecision. On the contrary, it manifests an anger, a sense of having been cheated by the government, and a determination to seek justice at last -- emotions that run so deep that the workers are willing to discipline themselves rigidly. For now.

"I'm no Marxist," says one Pole who is in awe of what he has seen in Gdansk and Warsaw and factories all over the country. "But Marx was right about the power of the working class."

"The Poles are not Czechs," comments one seasoned Western diplomat. "I doubt if the concept 'Let them starve' would work in Poland. The Poles don't have a tradition of giving in to crude methods of that kind. History speaks against it. And I think the mood the Poles are in right now is in the mainstream of their history."

"The issue isn't really how long the workers have to work," notes one French correspondent. "The issue is the same as in Gdansk in August: the dignity of the working class and people."

That's the rumbling underneath the still surface.